'Miss Lulu,' widow of Tigers' broadcaster Ernie Harwell, dies at 99

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Lulu and Ernie Harwell in an undated photograph.

One of the most-repeated lines about Ernie Harwell went something like this: Nobody ever heard anybody say a cross word about him.

That's not exactly true, however.

There was this one guy. 

"A fraternity brother had taken Miss Lulu to a dance, and the next week, Mrs. Harwell invited Mr. Harwell to a different dance," said Gary Spicer, the couple's longtime friend and attorney, with a laugh. "And 68 years later, they probably had the finest marriage I've ever seen. They were a perfect match."

Lulu Harwell, the widow of the legendary Tigers broadcaster, died at 5 p.m. Friday in Novi, Spicer told The Detroit News on Saturday. She was 99, and had been in failing health for the past six months.

Ernie Harwell died in 2010, from cancer, at the age of 92.

While Ernie Harwell maintained a very public persona, as the voice of the Tigers for 42 seasons, "Miss Lulu," as Ernie lovingly referred to her, kept a more-private profile. But she was Ernie's rock and loyal confidant from that day they met in Georgia years ago.

"It was a magnificent partnership," Spicer said. "It really was. I don't know any other adjective. They were perfect for each other."

They first met when Ernie was studying at Emory University in Atlanta and Lulu was at Brenau University, an all-girls school in nearby Gainesville. She was a popular student, as class president and social director of her sorority, hence that first dance.

Lulu and Ernie were married for 68 years, after meeting when both were in college in Georgia.

They were married in 1941, before Ernie joined the United States Marine Corps, in which he served for four years. 

From there, his sportscasting career took off, with the Atlanta Crackers (1948) to the Brooklyn Dodgers (1948-49; there, the Harwells became close friends with Jackie and Rachel Robinson); New York Giants (1950-53), Baltimore Orioles (1954-59); and, finally the Detroit Tigers (1960-91; 1993-2002), a hiring made at the recommendation of another Tigers broadcast legend, George Kell.

While Ernie maintained a busy scheduled for decades, Lulu didn't regularly watch or listen to Tigers games, Spicer said — unlike her good friend, Josephine Gehringer, Charlie's widow who watched and listened all the time, up until her death at 100 last July. Lulu kept the home, which included four children, Bill, Gray, Julie and Carolyn. They also had seven grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.

Lulu thoroughly enjoyed gardening, especially roses.

"When Ernie brought home a few seats from Tiger Stadium, those green seats — she was a terrific gardener, and Ernie, he wasn't as good," Spicer said. "Well, when he came back from a road trip, she had painted the green seats black to go with the decor! And Ernie just said to her, like always, 'Wow, the seats look great.' I never heard the two of them, in over 30 years of working with them, have a cross word."

Lulu also was very involved in Ernie's business ventures; her excellent spelling often came in handy. She was a very good judge of character, said Spicer, who only ever heard her say a bad word about two people. He declined to identify those two individuals, other than to say they were connected to Ernie's stunning and wildly unpopular firing as Tigers broadcaster after the 1991 season.

Mike Ilitch, after buying the Tigers in 1992, rehired Ernie for the 1993 season.

Ernie and Lulu Harwell with Jose Feliciano.

Ernie would go on to broadcast 10 more seasons with the Tigers before retiring after the 2002 season. His death in 2010 brought more than 10,000 fans to a public viewing at Comerica Park.

After his death, Lulu remained in their longtime apartment in Metro Detroit, until only recently being moved into an assisted-living facility. Lulu "thought of him constantly all through the rest of her life," Spicer said, while also keeping her weekly routine of a hair appointment and a massage — same day, same time. She became a fan of "Seinfeld," wearing out multiple tapes. She also was instrumental in the creation of Wayne State's Harwell Field. The Detroit Public Library has dedicated a room to the Harwells, and it houses Ernie's expansive collection of baseball memorabilia, considered possibly the second-greatest collection behind the Hall of Fame. The hope is to eventually move much of the Harwells' exhibit to Wayne State.

The Tigers issued a statement Saturday night, saying, "Our thoughts are with the family and friends of Lulu Harwell, wife of former Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell. Lulu will always be remembered for her passion for the Tigers."

Lulu Harwell was born in Kentucky, an only child to academic parents. In college, she was socially active, liked by all and "absolutely gorgeous," Spicer said, and studied English as well as communications. She wrote poetry, and loved to read. Later in life, one of her daughters regularly was fetching her new books from the Farmington library.

She loved music, as Ernie did; they became friends with Jose Feliciano, who famously sang the alternate version of the national anthem at the 1968 World Series, at Ernie's invitation. They loved to dance.

The Harwells also were very spiritual, studying the Bible and traveling to Israel.

"They had a very close relationship with God," Spicer said.

Ernie and Lulu Harwell with Sparky Anderson's wife Carol.

The Detroit News' Neal Rubin recalled visiting the Harwells at their home in Farmington Hills in the late 1990s, before they moved to the Fox Run retirement community in Novi, and having Lulu greet him like visiting royalty — "which of course was how she greeted everyone."

She'd gently correct her husband on non-baseball subjects, Rubin said, "things like what restaurant they had gone to on a given evening with Jackie and Rachel Robinson."

Then, Rubin said, Harwell asked in his distinctive Southern lilt, "Lulu, how about some of that fine butter pecan ice cream?" 

She brought two bowls on a tray, Rubin said, and as she left the room, "Lulu put her hand on his shoulder, and he squeezed it. It was absolutely endearing.

"They'd been married at that point longer than I'd been alive."

The family will hold a private funeral, Spicer said.


Twitter: @tonypaul1984